“To be, or not to be? That is the question” —unarguably the most famous line of the English canon, is cornerstone to language as a craft to extricate one’s innermost, sophisticated thoughts that put into question all of existence, including the very words used to convey such inquiry. Often the most important elements lose attention overtime because they are so built into our default subconscious that we begin to take their existence for granted. “Be” being one of the most fundamental verbs in the English tongue, threatens the functionality of the entire language were it to be erased from established lexicon. Juxtaposed against its negation, the verb echoes within itself, an existential crisis where the signifier and the signified are separated for the sake of higher definition, for under convention it is used but to link other ideas. Hamlet elevates the importance of “being” to a new level by engaging it in the context of life and death, an internal philosophical discourse on whether it is better to succumb to life in this world or another, in turn suggesting fleshly death. Bearing in mind the overwhelming sufferings enacted on him—and universally on each one of us—Hamlet invites the audience to seriously weigh against each other, the options of life and death. Is it nobler to drag through in misery or to end one’s sorrows immediately in an act of “self-offense” (as the gravedigger used to describe Ophelia’s suicide)?
Whilst the beginning of what would constitute the most renowned soliloquy in the world, spoken by Hamlet in Act III, scene i (58-90) is remembered by mass culture, the real sensation lies in Hamlet’s subsequent speculative attempts to answer his own question: “To sleep: perchance to dream:—ay there’s the rub; / For in that sleep of “dreams” may come” (68-69). Parallel to the death and resurrection of Christ (given that the crucification is more celebrated than the rebirth that rightfully follows), what seems like an obvious decision, (in that of course it is easier to doze off eternally than to confront one’s current struggles of revenge, love, hatred, and battle for honor), complicates in essence once the unpredictability of such death comes into balance. A deep sleep “perchance to dream” seems impeccable at first, but disposed to further investigation, there is no guarantee that such may release one from earthly sufferings since nobody knows what the exchanging experience has to offer. Despite awareness of innumerable challenges thrown the way of men who swallow life’s humiliations—the abuse and insults from arrogant men, the injustice, mistreatment, and rudeness towards conscientious people, or the pain in unreciprocated love—Hamlet eventually retracts to living, for it appears safer to deal with the known, no matter how horrendous, than to single-handedly walk into the unknown, the fear of which transcends all seen nuisances.
Metaphysical generality aside, this speech is extraordinarily telling (likely the most) of Hamlet as a character, layering upon him a multiplicity of perspectives so that he could legitimate his choices through a series of powerful differentiation from which to derive a logical conclusion. Though closing up to his ultimate epiphany with each deduction, the calculations are collectively infinite and constantly changing so much that ironically, they prevent him from executing any tangible plans. Wavering every second in the advent of a better resolution, Hamlet becomes indecisive, a confused man whose thoughts are caught in a web of polar opposites, left aloofly alone to decide whether or not to surrender his vengeful duty. Killing himself would tranquilize calamities and put his heartaches to rest, since notwithstanding camouflaged consequences, he would no longer have to watch his uncle reign over Denmark in a live robbery of his father’s throne, nor would he feel obligated to avenge his father’s murder. As far as he knows, but only as far as he knows, he would be at peace. The stylistic character Shakespeare creates through this prose is one in which he lets flow Hamlet’s stream of evolving consciousness radiating out of his enigmatic and contradictory mind that tends to never fully communicate its inner workings, always subliminally leaving important knowledge up to other characters to decipher.
Located in quite literally the middle of the play, the To be or not to be soliloquy occurs in a limbo when Hamlet has arranged all scheme to test Claudius’ guilt, so that in the meanwhile he has ample time to ponder intensely. His tentative disposition makes it hard for him to hang affirmatively to any belief, especially when his attention is undivided from executable endeavors, his only task being to wait. The lack of command drives him mad and propels him to excessively overthink, to the point his two former soliloquies, both filled with heated emotions, are subdued by this relentlessly intellectual Hamlet. The speech is thematically crucial to the development of the play because it serves a liaison used to exfoliate Hamlet’s mixed attitude towards others: Claudius, Ophelia, and the Ghost, his queer behavior stimulated by preoccupations within it. In a spiritually ambiguous universe, God becomes the point of contention instead of a mere given, and the speech makes it clear that Hamlet simultaneously believes and does not believe in God. He acknowledges that committing suicide is a sin, but is nevertheless lured by the potential ransom it entails. The ghost’s groundbreaking appearance is nothing short of conspicuous to Hamlet, yet knowing that his mother Gertrude along with everybody else cannot see its manifestation, he casts doubts on its validity, whether it really ministers to his dead father, the poisoned king of Denmark, or is channeling but some wicked force that pushes him off the cliff of sanity. Similarly, Hamlet cannot make up his mind to confront his feelings for Ophelia, hence sending her inconsistent signals, first the greatest of love then the harshest of condemnation, encouraging her to never marry and die old in a nunnery. It is the equally frustrating nature of both religion and methodical philosophy that has brought him to this on-the-verge speech, in which he miserably explores liminal possibilities overlapping the threshold of life and death.
In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s most recent production of Hamlet, the To be or not to be question acquires new significance. The performance delivered by an all black cast and the stage adorned with consistent African elements, this rendition proves it perfectly possible to keep true to Shakespeare’s intentions while turning the yet to be disrupted social structure upside down. Without altering many more aspects than the geographical context and racial given of the original text, it transfigures Hamlet’s identity by sheer existence—an odd piece of unfamiliarity to a familiar play. The fact that an European plot line is rendered by a black cast revolutionizes the mind’s capacity to picture royalty: it does not have to be white to be what it is. Destruction of customary norms sets the play, the characters, and the audience floating adrift, collectively anticipating where such opened gates would lead them. Derailment from the traditional Shakespearean stage to a runway-style theater, coupled with the abstraction of modern art used to personify it, adds to this increasing instability. Unspecified parts of the script need not be assumed but revered through pure imagination and creativity, and if needs be that Hamlet finds himself in an African empire with tribunal drums alongside other props used to accentuate a climax, let it be.
My personal opinion is that To be or not to be goes beyond life and death to incorporate the aggregate of all that has been taken for granted, built so strenuously into our system that nurture is eradicated by nature. We forget that nothing is born into what it is, but rather becomes it. Watching Paapa Essiedu grabbing the wholesome attention of all presence in the house, the light shedding on his ever so expressive face with its shadow prolonging into the extending trail of the runway stage; as I sat there witnessing his emotions warm up to recite the most famous lines ever written, I could not help but be distracted by the phenomenon itself. For the blink of an eye, I was taken out the world of Hamlet into the world of colored rights, and gasped in awe at how this performance, for the mere duration that it lasted, had switched every yin with its yang. It landed me upon the arbitrary nature of being that could well have spiraled into another realm of reality if only one moment in history went astray. What if the black occupied England all along, what if a decisive victory was awarded otherwise and the black emerged as the superior race to the white, leaving the latter with disrespected labour work? What if everything that is not becomes what is and everything that is becomes what is not? To be, or not to be, that is the question. Indeed it is.